ALP: We have an employee who needs to lift patients and equipment in her job who has complained previously about a bad back. Can we send her out for a medical exam to make sure she can do her job?

April 2007

It is a bad idea without more specific information indicating the employee is likely to hurt herself or others.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits most medical exams of employees required by employers. 

However, employers are allowed to require medical exams if they are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  This means an employer needs to be able to provide really good reasons for suspecting  an employee cannot do his job safely.  The Supreme Court has explained that the safety of both the employee and others can be considered. 

Given that most people have had back pain at one time or another, the mere fact  the employee has previously complained about back pain at one time is probably not a sufficient reason to require the employee to undergo a medical exam.  If, however, the employee has revealed he is scheduled for an MRI because of back pain and there are credible reports that the employee is struggling to lift, then a limited medical exam on an employee who is lifting patients probably makes sense to ensure safety.

In general, employers should be cautious using medical exams not only because of the ADA, but also because employees often resent their employers requiring them to see a doctor.  When an employer decides a medical exam makes sense, it is important to limit the medical exam to what the employer needs to know about the employee performing his job.  It is not the time to find out about the employee’s toothache – not that you wanted to know anyway!